Verbal abuse is derogatory language with the intent to humiliate, hurt, and/or undermine. It robs the other person of their dignity and sense of security.
Mostly, verbal abuse occurs in anger; sometimes it occurs with cold calculation (in which case, the abuser is much more of a threat to another’s well-being and that relationship should be terminated immediately.)
I’m going to address the former situation: Where abuse occurs in anger, when self-control is lost, and the person is remorseful afterward.
The tips I’m going to give apply to both the person doing the abusing, and the person being abused, because ending abuse while remaining in the relationship is actually a collaborative effort.1) If you’re being abused and believe the abuser regrets his/her actions and wants them to stop, then initiate a conversation about how this will happen. It’s best for it to be a partnership: “We want to rid our relationship of this, because it’s destructive and harmful.”
The abuser needs to take full responsibility for the behavior. Now, the abused person can try to change actions as well (for example, not saying provocative things, or working to eliminate triggers.) But ultimately, the abuser has to own the behavior, or it will not change. Making excuses slows the healing process.
If you’re the abuser and you don’t want to be (i.e. you feel out of control during and terrible after), then you need to make a plan for how it’s going to stop.
That means sitting down with the other person and talking about triggers, exit strategies, etc. You want to think about how to extricate yourself from a conversation that is getting heated until you have the tools to handle it.
Then figure out how you’re going to get those anger management tools. There are plenty of good anger management workbooks; you could take an anger management class; you could seek out a therapist. But you need to commit to a plan. It won’t change on its own.
2) Acknowledge the abuse, every single time, as early as you can in the exchange. NAME IT AS ABUSE–both in the moment, and when it’s being discussed, more calmly, later.
This is critical. It involves puncturing the denial that so often surrounds abuse, and giving up the excuses, for both parties. It doesn’t matter that he/she was very angry at the time, or that he/she had a bad childhood themselves. What matters is the action occurring RIGHT NOW.
So say, “This is abusive. Let’s end this conversation and talk again later.”
Now, you (the abused) might be thinking, “Won’t the abuser be even angrier when I name it? Won’t it make things worse?” But avoiding calling it by its right name exacerbates the problem. That kind of thinking–if I just do this, if I don’t do this–is one of the most destructive parts of the whole dynamic. You are making yourself responsible for the other person’s actions. That needs to stop.
Naming it is a way of shifting the responsibility to the abuser, where it belongs. Hopefully, it occurs early enough in the incident that it jars the other person into saying, “Right, I don’t want to do this anymore!”
Early is key. Once it has escalated, naming it will have less power because the abuser might have lost touch with the part of himself/herself that cares.
3) Whatever the plan is, carry it out faithfully. Come together and evaluate the effectiveness.
If your original plan is not effective against the abuse, then you need to make another. You might need to consult books or a professional. But what’s most important about this step is that it reinforces that you are continuing to work on the problem as a unit. You’re in it together.
That might seem contradictory (wait, we’re in it together, but the abuser is wholly responsible for his/her own actions?), but think of it this way. Both parties need to learn to be appropriately assertive: to say what is and isn’t okay, in a way that respects the other. Both need love, support, and accountability in order to do so.